Munster head for semi-final playoffs after seeing off Connacht

Sight of Conor Murray leaving pitch during warm-up with a neck injury will be a worry

Munster’s Tadhg Beirne scores a try during their Pro14 win over Connacht. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Munster’s Tadhg Beirne scores a try during their Pro14 win over Connacht. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Munster 27 Connacht 14

Results elsewhere contrived to reduce much of this game’s meaning in terms of the Conference tables and the play-off picture, not that you’d necessarily have noticed in a spicy, full-on affair. An Irish derby is an Irish derby.

Munster completed their half of the equation with an entertaining win over a spirited Connacht, but in the event it mattered little, with Glasgow’s win over Edinburgh ensuring Munster could not overtake the Scots at the top of Conference A, and so bypass the quarter-finals with a home semi-final.

Instead, they are consigned to playing Benetton next Saturday in the day’s first quarter-final in Thomond Park at 3pm, with Ulster hosting Connacht in the other tie at 5.35pm in the Kingspan Stadium.

If Munster win, they will then be away to Leinster at the RDS in a repeat of last season’s semi-final, while Glasgow will host the winners of the Ulster-Connacht match in the other semi-final.

Events conspired to make this encounter something of an anti-climax, not least the singularly disconcerting sight of Conor Murray being removed from the action before kick-off after appearing to hurt his neck in the warm-up.

Furthermore, Benetton’s bonus point win over Zebre sealed their place in the playoffs for the first time and automatic qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.

In the end Edinburgh were left disappointed in Glasgow as their loss meant that they missed out on the Champions Cup playoff match by one point with Scarlets taking that despite their shock defeat to Dragons earlier in the day. Munster needed Edinburgh to win in that Scottish derby, which kicked off simultaneously, if they were to usurp Glasgow atop Conference A and earn a home semi-final but it was not to be.

News that Glasgow were two tries and 17-3 to the good by the end of the first quarter in Scotstoun quickly put hopes of a home semi-final out of reach.

Yet none of this seemed to filter through to the crowd, officially given as 19,999, or the players. Or if it did, they weren’t bothered by it.

That Connacht were equally keen to play their part in this loose and jaunty affair contributed hugely to the entertainment. Their debutant outhalf Conor Dean had a penalty into the stiff wind blown off course but in all other respects he looked composed, pulling the strings and distributed the ball slickly.

After Neil Cronin, promoted in place of Murray, earned an opening Tyler Bleyendaal penalty by passing the ball at a ‘lazy’ Tom McCartney, Connacht again demonstrated their ambition when Kieran Marmion nearly zipped in from 25 metres after his surprise quick tap, but was hauled down by a combination of Mike Haley and Cronin, and there was no teammate on his wavelength.

Bundee Aki and Tom Daly tackle Chris Farrell. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Bundee Aki and Tom Daly tackle Chris Farrell. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Still, it earned an attacking lineout from which Marmion sniped again and offloaded to the supporting McCartney, and after a sequence of close-in rumbles Ultan Dillane drove Connacht under the Munster posts before Finlay Bealham marked his return by taking the tackles of Niall Scannell and Chris Cloete to twist and conjure an overhead touchdown. Dean converted.

Munster went up a gear in response. They seemed to have regained the lead when Andrew Conway intercepted Tiernan O’Halloran’s no-look offload, but as he casually sauntered in behind the posts and dallied over the touchdown, a-la Freddie Burns, he had the ball dislodged, a-la Maxime Medard, by former Munsterman Stephen Fitzgerald.

Haley was nearly in before being hauled down by a typically fired up Bundee Aki, and had his offload picked off by Tom Daly, before Beirne went through a hole in the Connacht line from Cronin’s popped ball – with a hint of obstruction by Jean Kleyn on Robin Copeland – before goose-stepping around Niyi Adeolokun to score under the posts. Locks aren’t supposed to do that, least of all to wingers.

Connacht’s undermanned defence in the openside on halfway was then exposed courtesy of crisp passes by Scannell and Haley for Conway to beat Copeland on the outside and link with Peter O’Mahony, who laid on the try with ribbons by passing inside to the supporting Haley. Bleyendaal again converted for a 17-7 interval lead.

Within five minutes of the restart, Connacht brought on replacement hooker Shane Delahunt, but with his first act, called to the tail, his throw was picked off by Beirne.

However, after Connacht withstood a 14-phase attack following Dan Goggin’s big carry, they had better joy when bringing on replacement props Peter McCabe and Conor Carey. Both are moving on at the end of the season, but they immediately helped to earn a relieving scrum.

Connacht were hanging on grimly, evidenced by O’Halloran’s superb piece of recovery work from Bleyendaal’s chip over the top, and Aki was fortunate not to be yellow carded for his one-handed slap to prevent Bleyendaal complete his wraparound with Goggin. O’Mahony, himself now typically fired up too, seemed to suggest as much to referee Frank Murphy, a former Munster and Connacht scrum-half. Bleyendaall kicked the penalty for a 20-7 lead.

Soon after though, O’Mahony hauled Eoin McKeon to ground, held him down and whipped off his jersey, and after recourse to a video review, Murphy penalised him. O’Mahony was not impressed, but no prizes for guessing who picked off Delahunt’s throw when Connacht went to the corner.

Now it was becoming a little more spiteful than spicy.

Tempers flared a few times between the sides. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Tempers flared a few times between the sides. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

With Murphy losing some control, not least of the breakdown, another schmozzle broke out when Munster held out another lineout and ensuing attack, Cloete diving off his feet to prevent Marmion clearing the ball away when the referee adjudged the ball was out.

However, it was a sequence of scrum penalties which culminated in Murphy brandishing a yellow card to Jeremy Loughman. This in turn meant Arno Botha being replaced after less than a minute on the pitch, rather than take off O’Mahony or CJ Stander.

Connacht’s prolonged siege was finally rewarded when a series of forward drives resulted in McKeon taking Caolin Blade’s pass the the tackles of Rhys Marshall and Haley for the try. Dean’s conversion made it a one-score game, but not for long.

Billy Holland, Conway, Beirne and Haley linked together, before JJ Hanrahan, having blown one preceding attack with a poor kicked, stepped off his right foot through an over-stretched defence to score under the posts.

This was the cue for the introduction of debutant Irish under-20 scrum-half Craig Casey, who really does look like a special talent.

Ditto Dean, who broke and chased his own clever chip into space to force the covering Calvin Nash into conceding a five-metre scrum. But it was Casey who had the final say, not first time in his career one suspects, by winning the game’s final turnover.

Scoring sequence – 21 mins Bleyendaal pen 3-0; 24 mins Bealham try, Dean con 3-7; 31 mins Beirne try, Bleyenbaal con 10-7; 37 mins Haley try, Bleyendaal con 17-7; 56 mins Bleyendaal pen 20-7; 70 mins McKeon try, Dean con 20-14; 75 mins Hanrahan try and con 27-14.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Calvin Nash; Tyler Bleyendaal, Neil Cronin; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Chris Cloete, CJ Stander.

Replacements: Jeremy Loughman for Kilcoyne, John Ryan for Archer (both 53 mins), Rhys Marshall for Scannell, Billy Holland for Kleyn, Arno Botha for Cloete, JJ Hanrahan for Bleyendaal, Sammy Arnold for Farrell (all 68 mins), Kilcoyne for Botha (69-79 mins), Farrell for Goggin (71 mins), Craig Casey for Cronin (76 mins).

Sinbinned: Loughman (69-79 mins)

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Tom Daly, Stephen Fitzgerald, Conor Dean, Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Joe Maksymiw, James Cannon, Eoin McKeon, Jarrad Butler (Capt), Robin Copleand.

Replacements: Shane Delahunt for McCartney (45 mins), Peter McCabe for Burke, Conor Carey for Bealham (both 49 mins), Eoghan Masterson for Cannon (57 mins), Eoin Griffin for Aki (59 mins), Caolin Blade for Marmion, Paul Boyle for Butler (both 64 mins), Darragh Leader for O’Halloran (73 mins).

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).

Pro14 semi-final qualifiers

Saturday May 4th

Munster v Benetton, Thomond Park, 3pm

Ulster v Connacht, Kingspan Stadium, 5.35pm

Semi-finals

Friday May 17th

Glasgow v Ulster/Connacht, Scotstoun, 7.35pm

Saturday May 18th

Leinster v Munster/Benetton, RDS, 3pm

Champions Cup playoff

Ospreys v Scarlets - date and time TBC

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